Back To School During COVID-19 Pandemic: Preparation Steps To Keep In Touch With Students

COVID-19 blog series

The transition from July to August has always been a touchstone for communities as it signals that school is just around the corner. This year, due to COVID-19, these few weeks have and will continue to be momentous as governments, school districts, educators, and families decide on in-person, remote schooling, or some type of hybrid model. ICS has dug deep into this issue, and the evidence for and against is mixed. What we would stress is that any decision needs to weigh a number of factors equally – public health, academic achievement, equity and inclusion, and economic factors. They all affect one another, and ICS believes factors are too local-specific to promote any one policy or organizational position.  

Yet, anticipating that many schools will choose virtual schooling at some point this coming academic year, an issue arose from last school year unique to that practice: specifically, students and teachers losing contact with one another. In South Carolina, an early count performed in June found an estimated 13,500 – 16,000 children students (about 2% of the entire student population) were unaccounted for, meaning that their teachers had not communicated with them. As of August, this figure has been brought down to just around 3,000. However, this issue was not unique to South Carolina. In Texas, nearly 11% of students were “not responding;” in Orlando, about 1.5%; in Cleveland, Ohio, 13%; and in Los Angeles, 13% were not responding, and one in three were “not regularly participating.”  

Over the past month, South Carolina has made a significant effort in contacting students, bringing the figure down to 7,400. Yet, as data has become more available, it is clear that under-resourced students and school districts are at the highest risk for falling out of contact. Narrative data from South Carolina indicates more frequent “disconnection” for some students than others: 

  • students who live in rural areas,  
  • student with low internet access,  
  • students from low-income families,  
  • students experiencing housing insecurity, and/or  
  • students who are English as a Second Language (ESL)  

Data out of Texas seems to support this trend – while 11% of all students were “disconnected,” nearly 16% of “economically disadvantaged” students experienced disconnection, compared to only 6% of students from higher economic statuses. This, unfortunately, also manifested in race: 16% of African American and 13% of Hispanic students were disconnected, compared to 6% of Caucasian students.  

SOLUTIONS Due to the nature of COVID-19, many schools and teachers found unique ways of locating students with many school officials simply canvassing neighborhoods or driving to houses. In Detroit, one principal walked door-to-door until she was able to locate students. In Orlando, schools chose to send out all non-teachers into the community. In addition, many school officials “scoured” social media, contacting friends and family members until children were located. And in South Carolina, schools attempted to mitigate technological issues through provision of laptops and even sending school buses out to act at “internet hotspots.”

While the efforts above are laudable, they placed extra burden onto the shoulders of teachers and administrators for whom the burden was already increased. And, given the unpredictable nature of COVID-19, these school officials are already managing multiple plans, modes of teaching, and adapting to change rapidly. As a result, in order that this known issue is not made worse, ICS proposes policy and practice solutions at the district and state level that may be able to mitigate this issue. 

Early Warning and Response System focused on Child Safety and Health 
As the saying goes, “what gets measured, gets done.” In South Carolina, districts measure attendance at the 45- and 135-day mark for state funding purposes. Given the nature of remote learning, measuring this earlier and more frequently will offer better data sooner from which leadership can deploy resources. 

Create “contact” teams of non-classroom staff to locate students 
Non-classroom staff have more flexibility when schools are functioning remotely. Utilizing these staff members could go a long way in reducing burden on teachers, increasing communication, and collecting data.  

Create pools of resources that address known barriers for students 
In order to support students, barriers will need to be addressed. These barriers include technology, food, school supplies, and other typical resources schools provide when in person schooling takes place. While many families can provide these on their own, the most at-risk students often cannot; and as these students are also the most at-risk for being disconnected, the ability to rapidly deploy resources (24 hours or less) to these students would go a long way. In addition, “contact” teams should have these resources at their disposal with significant flexibility. 

Allocate funding to high-risk schools/districts 
As the data shows, rural and under-resourced schools experience student disconnection in higher concentrations. These schools already lack the support staff that higher-resourced schools have at the ready. These areas need increased and flexible resources to handle remote learning. 

Communicate clearly to parents 
While school officials reaching out to parents is largely a good thing, there does exist some distrust between families and officials inquiring about health and safety of children. This is especially true of families of color, based on the history of these systems. Communicating to parents early and often about the intent of any such early warning and response system is a necessary step to increase trust.  

While these efforts may seem like one more labor-intensive item for overtaxed school staff to take on, they can make the difference in ensuring children continue to receive the education and other supports they need during this difficult time. Social distancing may be necessary right now, but social connection has never been more important for students. 

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